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The Real Scoop on LEED and Preservation

Posted on: March 2nd, 2010 by Patrice Frey 9 Comments


Last week, NPR did a piece on Morning Edition about the intersection of sustainability and preservation. The piece profiled Paul Song, who, after demolishing his home, is now building a $1 million LEED-Platinum house which will be the first “100% energy-independent” home in Santa Monica, CA. The preservation view was thoughtfully articulated by Linda Dishman, Director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. Linda pointed out that keeping existing homes often has environmental value and that the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards don’t do a particularly good job of recognizing the value of building reuse.

This piece was a great way to get a large audience’s attention on the sustainability/preservation nexus, and I’d never refuse the opportunity to catch the ear of all those people out there as they’re drinking their morning coffee. But unfortunately the reporter left listeners with a couple of mistaken impressions, including that LEED and historic buildings are incompatible. Visitors to this blog will know this is far from true (see our very own Robert H. Smith Visitors Education Center at President Lincoln's Cottage – which is LEED-Gold -- for proof. The project was even named the 2009 “Project of the Year” in the New Construction/Major Renovation category by the U.S. Green Building Council’s National Capitol Region chapter.)

There’s a big difference between saying “we think more points should be awarded for building reuse” and saying “LEED doesn’t work for historic buildings.” Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t pick up on this distinction, and listeners are given the impression that green building and preservation just don’t mix. Nothing could be further from the truth, actually.

Ralph DiNola, a well known expert on preservation and sustainability, has written an excellent blog post in response to NPR’s piece and digs a little deeper into the relationship between LEED and preservation. Have a look!

Now if only we could get Ralph to go work for NPR...

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

EPA Hosts Symposium on Green Preservation

Posted on: January 27th, 2010 by Patrice Frey 1 Comment


During the last few years, I’ve been to more than my fair share of conferences on sustainability and preservation. But last week, I had the chance to attend a symposium that was really the first of its kind. The Midwest office (Region 5) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a Green Historic Preservation Symposium, at which nearly 300 preservationists, green building, and assorted other environmental types gathered to discuss the intersection of historic preservation and sustainability. This is the first such federally-led symposium that I know of, and EPA deserves much credit for taking the lead and hosting this gathering.

The full-day event included sessions on incentives for greening historic buildings and the disconnect between green building rating systems and the value of building reuse, as well as a lively discussion on the difficulty of encouraging the retrofit rather than replacement of existing windows. An afternoon exercise led by Carla Bruni, a consultant to the Chicago Bungalow Association, helped participants focus on some of the key advantages – and obstacles – to greening historic buildings.

Most importantly, the day opened up what I believe will be an extraordinarily valuable line of communication between the EPA and the preservation community about a range of issues that affect the environment and preservation – from the possibility of creating Energy Star guidance specific to historic buildings, to working together on any number of issues with the EPA, Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Sustainable Communities Program.

With my recent work on the National Trust’s life cycle assessment research, which will evaluate the value of building reuse compared to new construction, I’m also particularly eager to see the EPA’s continued participation in efforts to improve life cycle data for buildings – something that is badly needed. There are too few in the environmental and green building community who consider the environmental costs of our disposable building culture, and EPA could help significantly to improve the data and tools needed to understand the impacts of building construction.

As I understand it, the EPA will be issuing a summary of the symposium in the next few weeks, as well as posting power points from the various presenters. I’ll provide the link on once the EPA has them online. Meanwhile, feel free to share any ideas you have about how the EPA and preservation community might work together to promote building reuse and the greening of our historic buildings.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.


The beginning of a new year brings all kinds of interesting top ten lists, including the Earth Advantage Institute’s top ten green trends to watch in 2010.   Many of items to make the list aren’t too surprising – for example we should expect to see more net-zero buildings and more sustainable building education.   But I was happily surprised to see Earth Advantage’s prediction that we will see more efforts to understand the  environmental impacts of building materials is 2010.

“With buildings contributing roughly half the carbon emissions in the environment, the progressive elements in the building industry are looking at ways to document, measure, and reduce greenhouse gas creation in building materials and processes. Lifecycle analysis (LCA) of building products is underway by third party technical teams, while others are working with federal and state building authorities to educate staff, create monetized carbon credits, and develop effective carbon offset policies. This effort will be heightened once a federal cap-and-trade mechanism is launched in this country.”

While there’s been a lot of focus on green buildings in the last decade, most of that was directed to understanding how we can make buildings more efficient in their operation or location.  There hasn’t been nearly as much focus on understanding the environmental impacts of the materials used to construct or rehabilitate buildings.   Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) -- that somewhat daunting sounding term --  is the process by which we can understand the environmental impacts of a product through all phases of its life, including extraction of natural materials, manufacturing, construction, use and disposal.  LCA evaluates several different aspects of products, such as  the carbon released and energy used by the product, as well as other factors such as toxic emissions released into our air, water and soil.

The Department of Energy funds and houses the U.S. Life Cycle Inventory Database, and is thankfully ramping up its efforts to expand the availability and quality of data for all kinds of materials – from those used in packaging to housing.   Organizations such as the USGBC – which is moving towards a life-cycle based rating system – also have a strong interest in improved understanding of the environmental impacts of materials.   And, as Earth Advantage notes, there’s increasing interest in this subject because of the potential to turn carbon savings into money under a federal cap-and-trade program.  All of this may seem kind of nerdy, and kind of wonky, but for those of us who really want to understand the environmental impacts created by constructing new stuff  -- namely buildings --  this is great news.

We at the National Trust for Historic Preservation are also stepping up in 2010 and making our own contribution to understanding the environmental impacts of building materials and construction, thanks to a generous grant from the Summit Foundation. Last summer, we held a symposium on Life Cycle Assessment and historic preservation with experts on both subjects to  identify the research and tools needed to better understand the environmental value of reusing buildings.

After working through the recommendations from the symposium, the National Trust issued a Request for Qualifications for a research study to quantify the value of building reuse, and we’re now in the process of interviewing candidates to complete the study.  Our research will evaluate the environmental  impacts of building reuse compared to new construction using a number of typical scenarios, such as the demolition of a single family home and replacement with a new, green home.    We’re hopeful that we’ll have results to share by the end of the year, and that these results will help to shed light on why we should care about reusing buildings.

Stay tuned to PN for more info.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Flashback, 1950: Suburbanizing New Orleans

Posted on: December 18th, 2009 by Patrice Frey 1 Comment


Charity Hospital

Charity Hospital

Last month I found myself in New Orleans for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields conference, wondering if I had unwittingly traveled back in time to the 1950s or 60s. The conference was great; it was the city’s land use planning that left me disoriented.

This was my first trip to New Orleans, and in addition to learning all kinds of things about brownfields, I toured the Lower Mid-City neighborhood that is slated for demolition to make way for the sprawling suburban style medical campus planned by Louisiana State University and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The current LSU and VA development plan abandons Charity Hospital, one of New Orleans' most iconic buildings, in favor of a disjointed and sprawling medical campus located to the west of the Charity and Tulane Hospital (see the proposed development plan.)  To make way for this decidedly retrograde development, over 250 homes and commercial buildings in the Lower Mid-City neighborhood will be demolished. (Approximately 165 of these buildings are historic, and the National Trust named Charity Hospital and the adjacent Lower Mid-City neighborhood to its 2008 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.)

Residences in Mid-City New Orleans.

Residences in Mid-City New Orleans.

Stunning.  That’s the best word I can think of to describe the irresponsibility of the proposed development. In a city that has suffered so much loss, so much devastation, how can the further destruction of a viable neighborhood be justified? And for what gain?

And need I point out the irony of building a sprawling medical complex in a dense urban area  -- when the human health impacts of sprawl have been so well documented?  I guess that’s one way to ensure continued demand for health services related to obesity and sedentary life styles.

... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Meeting the Nashville Challenge: We Need Your Feedback!

Posted on: December 4th, 2009 by Patrice Frey


As a follow up to the Pocantico Convening, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Friends of the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology hosted a gathering of preservationists in Nashville during the 2009 National Preservation Conference. The purpose of this convening was to discuss policy challenges related to historic preservation and environmental sustainability. Prior to the meeting, we released the Nashville Challenge Statement, which provided a framework for discussing the challenges facing the preservation movement regarding sustainable development and green building.

The challenge statement notes: “In recent years, the preservation movement has articulated ways in which sustainable development and historic preservation are mutually reinforcing…Yet despite these connections, there are instances in which the goals, values, and policies for sustainable development and historic preservation diverge.” For example, many experts believe that in order for existing buildings to achieve greater than 40% improvements in energy performance, the building must incorporate renewable energy. However, the placement of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind turbines can sometimes challenge the integrity of historic buildings and landscapes.

The gathering provided an opportunity for the preservation community to discuss this and other issues. Participants were asked to respond to the Nashville Challenge: "How can the American historic preservation movement align with national efforts to address climate change and promote environmental sustainability?"

Nearly 300 people participated in the convening in person and online. The summary of the Nashville Challenge Convening is now available online. As we consider our next steps to follow up to the Nashville Challenge, we are eager to get your response to the issues and proposed actions outlined in this document.

View the Full Summary and Leave Your Feedback >>

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

October "To-Dos" with Bill McKibben

Posted on: September 14th, 2009 by Patrice Frey 3 Comments


Have a few extra minutes? Check out this excellent interview with Bill McKibben, founder of, from TreeHugger radio.   McKibben -- a plenary speaker at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville this fall -- explains why “350 is the most important number in the world.” That would be as in 350 parts per million, the level that has been identified as the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. More than 350 ppm “is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed or which life on earth is adapted."

The bad news? We’re already at 390 parts per million. As recently as a couple of years ago climate scientist believed the upper limit was closer to 400-450 parts per million, but recent events suggest our natural systems are changing faster that models predicted.  With a confirmed one degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperature, the rapidly melting Arctic, more wildfires, droughts, and assorted other disasters, McKibben believes the “the natural world is telling us things are already out of control.”

The big question is whether we’ll listen. McKibben doesn’t sugar coat the news, and he isn't going to help anyone sleep better at night.  But he might just give us the kick in the pants we need to go out there and do something to fight the worst of climate change, while we still can.  Plan to listen in as he addresses the preservation world on October 14th from Nashville (if you can’t make the conference, his address will be available on PreservationNation), and join McKibben’s International Day of Climate Action on October 24th.

Patrice Frey is the director of sustainability research for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.